Does America’s polarized political landscape render bipartisan legislation impossible? Are supermajorities the only way to move beyond gridlock? No, contends Michael Barone, coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics. Partisanship isn’t the reason why politicians don’t reach across the aisle—rather, it’s the fear that they’ll lose their seats.
Over the last 30 years, it has been easier to pass bipartisan legislation “when political voting patterns are stable and most members have reason to believe their seats are reasonably safe.”
From 1938 until the late 1970s, when turnover in Congress was low, a loose coalition of centrist Republicans and southern Democrats constituted a reliable voting bloc for many important pieces of legislation. That coalition came undone as liberal Republicans from the Northeast lost their seats and conservative votes in the South shifted to the GOP. After the elections of 1982 and 1984 passed without significant upsets, however, members felt comfortable. In 1985 and 1986, bipartisan majorities passed major legislation on taxes and immigration.
Bipartisanship receded from 1991 to 1995, a period that “saw an upending of political verities.” Republicans were thought to have a hold on the presidency, but Bill Clinton took the White House in 1992. Democrats were thought to own Congress, but they lost control in 1994. The rise of Ross Perot and other third-party candidates added to the uncertainty.
The years from 1995 to 2005 tell an interesting story. Pundits decried the bitter partisanship in Washington, but there was a surprising amount of bipartisan legislation. Despite the hot rhetoric, members of Congress didn’t feel that their seats were especially endangered. President Clinton was able to pass welfare reform in 1996, and he had a good chance of passing Medicare and Social Security reforms too until the impeachment debacle, Barone says.
Even after the divisive election of 2000, bipartisan coalition-building was possible. President George W. Bush enjoyed support from congressional Democrats on his 2001 tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind education reform effort, the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iraq war (a vote many Democrats later came to regret).
But in 2005, the stable pattern of the prior decade fell apart when support for Republicans dropped sharply in the polls. President Bush’s plans for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which enjoyed some Democratic support, died in the House because Speaker Dennis Hastert (R–Ill.), aware that many Republicans were at risk of losing their seats, refused to press the legislation. Then came the large Democratic majorities after the 2008 election, which removed incentives for bipartisan collaboration. President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, health care legislation, and financial reform all passed with little, if any, Republican support.
The upheaval in the 2010 election, in which Republicans took control of the House, makes it plain “that major legislation addressing long-term problems will have to have bipartisan support to pass.” But because the electorate has been so volatile, Barone thinks it will be difficult for legislators to overcome their fears and make headway on the deficit, entitlement reform, and immigration.
It’s a vicious cycle, Barone observes. “Why are voters so willing to ‘throw out the bums’? Because they think they can’t get much of anything done. Why can’t they get much of anything done? Because they’re afraid that bipartisan compromise will get them thrown out of office.”